Robert Sanger
Paul Wellman (file)

Renowned defense attorney Robert Sanger and activist Brandy Novak spoke at UCSB in favor of the Fair Sentencing Bill (California State Senate Bill 399), which offers youths sentenced to life in prison a chance of re-sentencing, if they can demonstrate that they are rehabilitated. The two explained to the crowd who turned out at the Multicultural Center on Thursday afternoon, May 6, that youths with no hope of getting out of prison have no incentive to reform, and that SB 399 offers four chances for review: four chances to prove the inexhaustible possibility of change and human potential.

The speakers focused concern on what happens before incarceration—on what they described as institutionalized racism resulting in cycles of poverty, vulnerability, and gang formation. Criticizing current strategies for dealing with gangs as vastly ineffective, the speakers said the problem is a pervasive attitude that seems to deny curiosity and understanding in favor of short-sighted solutions. They also indicated that law enforcement has a vested interest in perpetuating the prison system because it keeps law enforcement officers employed.

For example, they said, these days the authorities send kids to jail for being truant instead of investigating why they are not attending school. Often the behavior is a symptom of some larger issue. Perhaps the child is emotionally disturbed. Perhaps his home life is rough. Perhaps he is wrapped up in a gang, a situation which is itself the confluence of several thorny issues. Whatever the reason, the speakers argued that truancy is a problem that should be met with concern rather than with simple and thoughtless punishment. Jail should be a last resort, they said, suggesting also that if transgressions were more closely examined, much youth-related crime could be prevented early on.

Most people agree that youths should not spend their lives in prison, the speakers noted. Many teenagers are simply incapable of understanding the heft and consequences of many of their actions, they explained: Though a large portion of neurological development takes place by the age of 13, the brain continues to undergo structural changes well into the twenties at least (even, some argue, for the duration of one’s life). When it was written into law that California youth could serve life without a chance of redemption, the brain was conceived of as virtually fully developed by the early teens, according to the speakers. Scientists who study the brain now know that this is simply not the case, the speakers said.

Considering that the brain undergoes constant transformation, it logically follows that education plays a major role in rehabilitation: engaging individuals intellectually and emotionally, offering information and perspective.

In prisons, however, education programs are getting cut, and Novak said she isn’t even allowed to send textbooks to her imprisoned brother.

Sanger and Novak said that when a system is created that allows and encourages rehabilitation, society will begin to see more self-fulfilling prophesies of a positive, rather than a negative, nature. This bill, they said, would be a good start toward that change.


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